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Mobile Marches from Classroom to Battle

March 15, 2011
By Rachel Eisenhower, SIGNAL Connections

From identifying the enemy to understanding an anti-missile system and tracking emotional health after deployment: there’s an app for that. Commercial smart phone capabilities have found their way into the classroom and the battlefield, and the U.S. Army’s Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications initiative is using pilot programs to determine how these mobile platforms will change the way soldiers communicate and access information in the next 10 years.

The Connecting Soldiers to Digital Application (CSDA) program, led by the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC), began in September 2009. Since its inception, soldiers in the Army Evaluation Task Force have participated in a series of eight pilot programs to test smart phone technology at various sites, including Fort Bliss, Texas, where 200 handheld devices are being used for field applications. These initiatives will wrap up in the next six to eight months, and the center is preparing to release recommendations on how these commercial mobile technologies will impact the Army of 2020.

Lt. Gen. Michael Vane, USA, director, ARCIC, discussed the latest developments in mobile technology, how it could prove critical to gain the digital edge and the CSDA initiative at a roundtable hosted by the U.S. Defense Department’s Emerging Media Directorate. Gen. Vane relates that of the nearly 200 countries in the world today, at least 90 of them have the potential for failure—an assertion highlighted by the explosion of instability in the Middle East today. While the United States maintains a significant overmatch in the air and sea domains and arguably on the land for high-end operations, the general says, “in these environments of irregular warfare and counterinsurgency and stability operations, we’ve seen it takes us still quite some time to get the kind of advantage we’d like to have.”

The CSDA initiative focuses heavily on capabilities for small units, which Gen. Vane describes as increasingly important to land operations where the majority of nonsecure situations exist. Getting these units the technology they need to “kill or capture when required and to influence populations in order to create the perception of security” is a vital goal, the general says. In addition, the program focuses equally on both training and operational content.

As the center prepares its recommendations, developers are continuing to write apps on a daily basis, and more than 150 programs for both the training and operating environments exist. The Army also is working with the Chief Information Officer/G-6 and the Defense Information Systems Agency to ensure that a single app store exists. Currently, the apps are not connected to the network at large, but the Army is moving in that direction, Gen. Vane explains.

Along with producing smart phone apps, the initiative focuses on finding secure ways to connect. More than 70 percent of countries worldwide currently are developing 3G networks, Gen. Vane relates, and the Army hopes troops operating in and around urban areas will be able to take advantage of existing commercial infrastructure. For locations without robust networks, the center also has several initiatives studying portable infrastructure for both unclassified and classified networks. Giving soldiers the ability to travel and establish the base stations necessary for small units to communicate is essential, he states.

However, the Army’s biggest challenge in adapting commercial smart phone technologies is the existing military culture, Gen. Vane contends. For those who did not grow up with a smart phone, a cell phone or a computer, the idea that “the Army is in your pocket” can be challenging, he relates. The ability to pick up a device and operate it quickly using a small screen and keypad can be an issue for senior members of the Army who often control the monetary decision-making.

Within the next several months, the center will release its assessment of these pilots both in the training and operational worlds. Whether or not the group recommends that every soldier should have a smart phone in hand remains to be seen, but the general says this does make sense as a long-term goal. The first step is improving the Army’s requirements process so that commercial capabilities can be purchased cost-effectively in rapid two-year cycles, Gen. Vane notes. Looking at technology in an incremental approach will allow the Army to constantly evaluate which capabilities meet the needs of deployed forces.

“One of the most significant feedbacks you get from soldiers in theater is they look at their Afghan army compatriot or their Taliban guy who has a cell phone … and we want to deny that capability to our own soldiers,” Gen. Vane relates. “Whether it’s electronic warfare, biometrics identification, voice communications, digital, full-motion video, I mean, this is the direction ahead in the future.”

The general hopes the CSDA pilot programs will be a step toward giving soldiers the very best capabilities from commercial technology and securing them to meet the Army’s unique needs.